Lately

Maggie wanted to use the backyard swing set. She loved swinging, especially since she had conquered the skill of doing it without having to be pushed. It was like flying, she thought, though she had never flown and never would. Only birds and bugs could fly, she was smart enough to know that. She was only seven, but she would be eight soon, this autumn. However, when Maggie had come outside, she had seen that Alice was on one of the swings, and she felt her stomach drop.

Alice wasn’t swinging though, just sitting. Her hands were wrapped in tight fists around the chains and she was barely moving, just swaying back and forth, letting the toes of her pink sneakers scrape against the dirt trails that were carved into the ground.

Maggie wasn’t the smartest kid, but she knew Alice was sad just from looking at her. Maggie also knew that it would be wrong to go over and have fun right next to her big sister when she was so miserable. No matter how much she wanted to.

Maggie hopped up onto the swing next to Alice, but didn’t play. Alice’s head was down, and her brown hair was hiding her face so Maggie couldn’t see if she was crying or not. Nor could Maggie hear her, but that meant very little. Alice was very good at crying silently, quite the opposite of Maggie. When Maggie cried, she went all out with heavy sobs and hiccupped breath. But Alice, a whole four years older than Maggie, wasn’t like that. She didn’t weep much at all, compared to her little sister, who often got called a cry-baby. However, Alice had been crying a lot lately.

“Are you okay?” Maggie asked, after what must have been a very long two minutes. Minutes were always long when they were silent and so very short when they were loud, or sound-filled, or musical. Maggie hadn’t figured out this mystery yet.

Alice didn’t say anything for a moment and then spoke up with a whispered, “Go away.” It wasn’t mean like Alice could be when she didn’t want her annoying little sister tagging along yet again, but this time it wasn’t. It just was. The thing is, if it had been mean, Maggie might have protested. If she followed every one of her sister’s commands she would never have any fun. But it wasn’t mean, so Maggie slid off the blue plastic seat of the swing and went back inside. She decided to color. She would save the feeling of flying for another day when Alice was not outside, or not crying, or when Maggie felt a little less guilty about having fun.

~~~~

It had been three days ago that Mom told the two sisters that Kari had been in an accident. Maggie had always found accident a funny word, because it had so many meanings. Not funny as in something you laugh at, but funny as weird. It is an accident when a boy in Sunday school pees his pants in class. It is an accident when you trip and spill apple juice on the white rug. But it is also an accident when one car hits another car. Or when a car hits a person. That was the type of accident that happened to Kari.

Kari lived in the house across the street from Maggie and Alice. She and her little sister, Brenna, played with Alice and Maggie all the time. Brenna was Alice’s age, Kari a little older, and Maggie the youngest, but no one seemed to mind. Maggie decided to draw all four of them on the piece of printer paper she had pilfered from her parents’ office. She dumped all the magic markers out of the box and onto the table. She started with green for the grass, drawing the straightest line she could manage about an inch from the bottom of the page and carefully filling it in. Once she was done with the grass, she decided to start on the people. She was getting better at drawing people. They were all girls, so they all got triangle bodies like on the pictures on restrooms at McDonald’s and the grocery store. The triangles were dresses, and each of the four got different colored ones. Maggie selfishly gave herself a pink one even though she knew pink was Brenna’s favorite color too.

When she was done, Maggie added a few flowers popping out of the ground, a sun in one corner, with big orange rays that were stretching across the sky from the yellow circle, and a few blue swirly scribbles that were supposed to be clouds. Each girl on the page was a different height. Maggie was the smallest with her pink triangle dress and brown hair drawn off the smiley face that was her head, then Brenna, with long yellow hair, then Alice, just a smidge taller because she had her birthday last week and was now twelve while Brenna was still eight until November. Kari was the tallest, with a purple dress and yellow hair too, except hers was short. Kari was the biggest, because, as the oldest, it was natural that she was the tallest.

~~~~

“She’s at the hospital,” Maggie overheard her mom say on the telephone. “On life support.”

Maggie waited until her mother hung up the phone before asking, “What does it mean? Life support?”

Mom looked grim. Maggie thought for a moment that she was about to be scolded for eavesdropping. However, that didn’t happen.

“It means she is being kept alive by machines,” Mom said. This didn’t clear things up for Maggie, because she still didn’t understand what that meant. She imagined something out of cartoon with a mad scientist and his laboratory. A room full of pumps and flashing lights and tubes, Kari in the middle of it all, upright amongst all of it. Her eyes would be closed and there would be one of those oxygen masks over her mouth and nose, but otherwise she looked fine.

She could ask Mom for more, but Mom wasn’t all that good at explaining things like that. She always said Maggie was too young to understand, which frustrated Maggie. She was seven, almost eight now. When Mom wouldn’t answer, she usually asked Alice, who seemed to know everything that Maggie was curious about. She knew about how movies were made, how to read big books, and how to work the CD player. But Maggie was pretty sure that Alice had never been to a hospital or seen what type of machine kept people alive.

Alice and Maggie shared a room, complete with bunk beds, right at the top of the stairs. Alice was sitting on her top bunk when Maggie came into the room. Maggie climbed into her bed, not even taking off her shoes, and pushed herself so her back was against the cold wall. She picked up her rag doll from the end of the bed and cradled it to her chest. It was her baby after all.

“It’s my fault,” Alice said.

Maggie didn’t say anything, but pulled her little rag doll closer to her chest. She couldn’t see Alice from her place on the bottom bunk, but she didn’t need to. They had many conversations this way, especially at bedtime when they were supposed to be sleeping. They had to be careful about those ones, make sure to whisper, because Mom and Dad slept right next door.

“I got mad at her and uninvited her to my birthday party. If she had been there, she wouldn’t have tried to cross the street.” Maggie hadn’t heard that Kari was hurt until the day after Alice’s birthday party. In fact, she forgot that Kari hadn’t even been there. Brenna played with them more than Kari did. At the party, they had all gotten crowns and worn beads around their necks and pretended to be princesses, sitting around the kitchen table, drinking juice out of plastic teacups. It was fun. Kari didn’t have that last day of fun. She was left out. Maggie knew, being the youngest, how bad it felt to be left out when everyone else got to be in.

Despite all of this, Maggie still didn’t think Kari being in an accident was at all Alice’s fault. With all the different meanings of accident, accident still meant no one’s fault.

“Did Mommy say that it was your fault?” Maggie asked, smoothing out the wrinkles in her rag doll’s dress, which was now lying in her lap. Mom could always tell when she did something bad on purpose or not.

“No,” Alice replied.

“Then it’s not your fault. If it was, you would be in trouble.” Maggie thought this was a really important point to make. It was very clear, conclusive evidence as far as she was concerned. Maybe that would make Alice less sad.

“Plus, she will get better. She is with doctors, they help you get better. It’s their job. I heard Mommy say that she has machines helping her live.”

“That’s not a good thing,” Alice said. “That means that she can’t live by herself.”

“Oh.” Maggie gently placed her doll on her pillow. A strange feeling came over her, a weird, sinking, heavy feeling, like she was being dragged down in a pool that was too deep and she had lost her floaties. A little while later, she got up and left the room.

~~~~

A few days later, their family was heading out to Kari’s viewing. Mom explained that Kari’s parents had decided to take Kari off the machines that were keeping her alive. Maggie didn’t say it, but she thought it would have been easier to just let the machines keep her alive forever.
The room had a lot of people, dressed in black, and everyone was pretty quiet. The ones that were talking were talking in whispers, like they were spreading secrets.

“We decided on a closed casket,” Kari and Brenna’s mom told Maggie and Alice’s. “It—” she stuttered for a moment in her speaking, paused, and then continued, with her voice quieter, “It doesn’t look like her.”

Maggie could see the casket through the scattered crowd in the room. It was a fancy room, like something in her grandmother’s house. It had a dark red rug and uncomfortable-looking couches with large flowers sown into them, and straight-back wooden chairs. The casket was small, not like the one she had seen at her great uncle’s funeral a few months ago.

“Brenna’s in the room next door,” Kari’s mother said, “With some of the other kids.”

Mom took the sisters to the other room and left them there. It looked the same as the one before, full of furniture kids were not supposed to touch. Brenna was there in a black dress, sitting on one of the fancy couches.

“Hey,” she said, and Maggie suddenly realized that she hadn’t seen Brenna since Alice’s birthday party, a week ago now. Maggie didn’t know how to act. The only other viewing she had been to before was her great uncle’s. She hadn’t known him well, only seen him at a few family dinners on days like on Thanksgiving. She remembered that he was old, with thin white hair, cloud-like on his head and face covered with wrinkles like a spider web. People had been sad, but not too sad. He had lived to be ninety years old. Maggie thought it was a shame he hadn’t made it to a hundred, because that would have been amazing, but all the grown-ups, including her mom and her grandma, said he had lived a long, happy life. A lot of the people had stood up and told happy and funny stories about the man, making the whole family laugh, even as they sniffled a little bit.

But Kari wasn’t old. She was thirteen. Maggie tried to imagine if it had been Alice, not Kari, who had been the one who wandered down to the main street that their little neighborhood connected to. If she was the one who had tried to cross that busy street despite the fact that their Mom had told them many, many times not to wander down there. If Alice had been the one hit by a car, the one in the hospital, the one in the small box in the other room. But Maggie couldn’t imagine it, because Alice was standing right next to her in a gray skirt, black sweater, white stockings, and buckle shoes. Alice was alive, and Maggie couldn’t imagine what her life would be like without her big sister, because she had always been there, for as long as Maggie could remember.

“Hi,” Alice said to Brenna, but Maggie said nothing. She had been struck by a sudden shyness, which was weird. She was usually only shy around grown-ups, not other little girls like her.

Maggie didn’t join in the quiet conversation of the two other girls. Rather, she took one of the golden spine picture books off a stack on one of the low wooden tables and flipped slowly through the pages. It was the story of Bambi, and Maggie didn’t have to read the words, she had seen the movie enough to know what went with each picture on each page.

~~~~

Another week had gone by. Time was a curious thing, Maggie thought. It was all supposed to be the same, like how an inch is always an inch. However, sometimes it seemed like someone was using a remote control on it, sometimes hitting the fast forward button and other times the slow motion. Even more curious, sometimes it seemed like the two buttons were being held down at the same time. That was why just a week after the funeral seemed like forever but at the same time also like it had come that soon, as bedtime always does.

Alice, Maggie, and Brenna were sitting on the front lawn. They always had played in Maggie and Alice’s yard because it was so much bigger. They had been drawing with sidewalk chalk, but had grown bored. Now the three were just sitting cross-legged in a circle on the grass, which was crinkly and brown from a summer drought.

A red pick-up truck zoomed up the little neighborhood street going far too fast.

“I wonder if it was him,” Brenna said, staring after the truck. What had happened to Kari was called a hit-and-run, meaning, whoever hit her hadn’t stopped to help and that no one knew who did it. Who killed her. Killed, that was a very strong word, but one that Maggie had never had to use before, except when trying to learn the Ten Commandants in Sunday school class. Thou shalt not kill.

“He was going pretty fast,” Alice agreed.

Maggie tugged some of the dry grass out of the ground and released it into the breeze. “Do you think that you will ever find out who hit Kari?” she asked.

Brenna shook her head no. “My mom told me today…that we are going to move.”

“What?” Alice asked, sitting up straight really fast from where she was hunched over. “You mean, move to a different house? Where?”

“To Pennsylvania. My aunt and uncle live there,” Brenna said. In all of her seven, almost eight, years Maggie had never been out of the state of Maryland before. She didn’t want Brenna to go to Pennsylvania, because, well, she would miss her. It seemed it had been forever that Brenna would come across the street and play with Alice and her. She didn’t want that to change.

But it had already changed, Maggie realized. Kari could no longer come across the street to play with Alice or her. Only Brenna. And it had already changed, because now they could not split into two even teams for any of their games. And they didn’t laugh much anymore or sneak a CD player out of the house and listen to music.

“I don’t want you to move,” Alice said, and she looked ready to cry yet again.

“I don’t want to either, but my mom—my mom says that they can’t stand to stay here, with all the bad memories.”

“What about us? Are we bad memories too?” Alice asked.

“No. I will always remember you guys.”

~~~~

That night Maggie could hear Alice crying from the bottom bunk.

“It will be alright,” Maggie said when she worked up the nerve. That was the kind of thing Mom would say to her when she was feeling sick or was upset about something.

Alice’s breath hitched. “No, it’s not. It’s not alright. They’re all leaving. First Kari, then Brenna. And remember Elizabeth, my best friend from school. She moved away last year too. Every friend I make leaves. What’s wrong with me?”

“There is nothing wrong with you,” Maggie said. It wasn’t really enough to convince Alice, but it was all she could give. How difficult was it for Maggie to understand let alone find the words to say that—that sometimes bad things happen. Really bad things, the worst things, and no one could explain why. They just did, like how it would rain the day you were supposed to have a picnic, or a nightmare would wake you up at night but no one heard, so no one came to come comfort you back to sleep.

“Yes, there is. That is why everyone keeps leaving me. I don’t know who is going to be next.” Alice sniffled a really big sniffle then, but she had stopped crying for the moment.

“Go to sleep, Maggie,” she ordered.

“Only if you do to,” Maggie said.

“…okay. I will. I promise,” Alice said with a sigh.

Maggie closed her eyes then, trusting that Alice would do the same, even if she had no way of checking on her. Her big sister had never broken a promise before, at least not to her.

~~~~

The moving trucks had been at Brenna’s this morning. Before the family left, she had run over to hug Maggie and Alice goodbye. The sisters had been watching from the front porch of their house. Mom got out her camera and took pictures of the three of them standing on the top of the porch steps. And that was it.

Maggie found Alice sitting by herself on the swing set again. Without questioning herself once, she walked across the backyard and took seat on the swing next to her.

“Hello,” Maggie said.

Alice glanced at her and then down to the dirt under her feet. “Go away,” she mumbled.

“No,” Maggie said. She didn’t know what to do to help Alice when Alice was this sad about Kari dying and Brenna moving away. But Alice had always helped Maggie when she tripped and skinned her knee or when was scared of the dark the night her nightlight didn’t work. Alice had been crying a lot lately, and Maggie hadn’t been so good at helping Alice not feel so bad. Maybe she never would be.

After a moment, Maggie reached over and grabbed Alice’s hand. Her sister peeked up at her and blinked, almost surprised.

“I’m not leaving,” Maggie said, and squeezed Alice’s hand tighter for a moment. That was one promise Maggie would never break.

Margery Bayne splits her time between her home in Baltimore, Maryland and her school, Susquehanna University, in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania where she is majoring in Creative Writing and minoring in Editing and Publishing. She has been previously published in LITSNACK and Outrageous Fortune.

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